My Time in the Oligarch Zone at Super Bowl 50
What do you get when you buy a $15,000 to Super Bowl 50? Lobster, the opportunity to be an arbitrage victim, moderate buyer's remorse, and a long walk home.
Photo by Ed Zitron
This feature is part of VICE Sports' Super Bowl Coverage.
I have some advice for you: do not promise to take your brother to the Super Bowl. Even if it is the 50th Super Bowl, even if it is being played in the city where you live, and even if your brother—his name is Matt, and you are me in this scenario—says that he'll fly in for the game. Or, anyway, do not do this unless you are prepared to spend a great deal of money. If you are willing to do it, and you are stupid, and you are me, you can go ahead and say, "Sure!" I did.
I can tell you some things about this that you already know. The Super Bowl is not cheap, and it is not easy to get into. The NFL tells its story like this: "The majority of tickets are allotted to the two participating teams, and to a lesser extent through each of the other NFL teams. Remaining tickets for the general public are made available through a random drawing. There is no other means for the general public to purchase tickets. The NFL does not sell tickets to travel or ticket agents." As a member of the general public, I can tell you this is refined horse-shit.
It's jargon, mostly, and it conceals a labyrinth of sketchy dealings. The NFL doesn't sell tickets to the general public, nor do they sell them to the agents who will eventually sell them to you. According to this Huffington Post piece, 35 percent of tickets go to the AFC and NFC champions, which in turn dole them out to friends, family, and a very small lottery for season ticket holders. Five percent of tickets go to the hosting team's stadium—so, in this case, the 49ers—whose fans get the great chance to buy an $850 corner seat. Another 34.8 percent of tickets go to every other team in the NFL, to be split in a way that benefits a few lucky/influential fans; the remaining 25.2 percent go to the actual NFL, an organization renowned for its generosity. The NFL can do with those tickets whatever it wants.
And that, I imagine, is how my pair of tickets trickled down to Jarrod Fox of In The Know Experiences, an organization you pay to get into things like the Super Bowl. I was introduced through Ivy.com, on the very first day they launched something called Ivy Concierge, which proudly noted it could "organize tickets for you to attend extraordinary global events," including the Super Bowl. I responded, knowing Ivy, and said I wanted tickets. This was in March 2015, and early-bird pricing was in effect.
When you buy a Super Bowl ticket, you don't actually buy a seat. The seats don't exist yet, strictly speaking. Instead you're shown a map of the stadium, split into zones, each with its own price, increasing the closer you get to seeing the game from a good vantage point. For a mere $5,300 a ticket, you could get into the 401-422 section, and for just $15,500 a ticket, you were guaranteed at worst a spot in the "club" seats (plush seats, nice entrance, waiter service, good, expensive food you can walk up to get), down low, at the 30. You might even luck out and hit the 40 or 50. If you're working with someone legitimate, they ask 50 percent upfront, 50 percent on the day of the game.
I thought I'd be fine with seats in the 200s club, which were $14,500 per ticket—the second row, but at worst I'd be at the 30. A few months later, I'd sit in Levi's Stadium and mumble, "Ah, fuck" when I saw I should've ponied up the extra. I contacted Michael, said I wanted to upgrade, and expected the worst. I was offered a $2,950 a seat upgrade, which guaranteed at worst to be in the "gold VIP," either on the 40- or the 50-yard lines, and at worst on the 30th row of the 50. "Fuck it," I said, remortgaging my house and selling as much plasma as the law allows. I booked an Airbnb nearby so that I wouldn't brave traffic and continued to hate myself.
Before you say, "Ed, why didn't you wait for the secondary market!" the answer is "because the secondary market is a goddamn disaster." Super Bowl fraud is rife, and I was at least dealing with guys I had heard of before.
They also bolt on extra packages, one of which I ponied up for: $4,000 a ticket got me and my brother—hey, fuck you, Matt!—gameday hospitality (three hours beforehand, another hour and a half afterward) including premium food, open bar service, "player/cheerleader appearances, interactive entertainment," which I'll get to. That and the actually awesome perk of being on the field at the end of the game. I'd already spent too much money. It would've seemed wrong not to spend more. So I did it. Several months later, the NFL season started.
Five months (I know I'm an idiot) before the game, I noticed that even faraway hotels were at $500 a night, so I decided to use Airbnb's "instant" booking system; this is the one that means your reservation is made without the need for the host to guarantee it. I instant-booked an apartment 15 minutes from the game. The host canceled. Airbnb gives you 10 percent credit on a canceled reservation, but at the time didn't make it clear, so I stupidly got a refund and made another booking. Canceled again. Another. Canceled. Another. Canceled. Another, canceled. Every single person made up an excuse. "Uh, my family is coming to stay that day and uh also my dog died last night and its dread spirit still haunts this very house." Their listings would then appear weeks or months later, at massively inflated rates. Only one guy was honest enough to say, "Man, I know I can get more money than this." I admired him for it.
Eventually I just called Airbnb, exasperated, and yelled until they actually called multiple hosts to make sure they'd actually honor their reservations. Once you've decided to be the person that spends that much on a ticket, there's not really a limit to how much of a dick you can be.
But this was the game I'd chosen to play, and these were the people playing it almost half a year before the game. There was the startup that desperately wants you to believe it exists to help normal folks make a few extra bucks, and there were the people who used it as a platform to gouge as much as the market would bear. Look at Gizmodo's list of the worst listings available just before the game and you'll see how well this worked. Airbnb can talk about supply and demand and users setting their own prices, and they will. I got a perfectly good place a 25-minute walk away that was nice and comfortable, and can't complain about that. I also got a lesson in corporate not-giving-a-fuck.
Airbnb could have set guidelines, caps, perhaps said, "No, asshole, saying you're only renting your home for $10,000 for the entire week [an actual listing] is unreasonable," and kept singing their saccharine pro-consumer tune. Airbnb didn't do that, though, and so no home in the area could be found for less than $750 a night. A thinkfluencer would argue that the good people with housing around Levi's Stadium made money they otherwise wouldn't, and that this helps the economy. I would encourage that person not to forget about Airbnb's cut. At any rate, it was clear, if it hadn't been clear before: I had bought a ticket on the clusterfuck express.
The Big Game
Once the tickets arrived, in late January, I demanded pictures. Every website claimed to have tickets, most were probably lying, and I wanted to know for sure. Jarrod and his colleagues Seth and Michael patiently assured me they'd be there the next day. They were.
I was very pleased with myself. I'd won the lottery, pretty much: the tickets were dead-center on the 50, on the Broncos side of the stadium. The tickets themselves are ridiculous—they're thick, hologrammed placards, and the on-field/hospitality passes are full-blown lanyards. I stared at two pieces of paper amounting to the cost of an Audi and shoved them in the safe before I could think too hard about what I'd done.
I was spending stupid amounts of money, but according to Seatgeek, as of a few days before the game, seats were $16,000 apiece in my section. I suppose I could have waited, but the chances of a secondary market person coming through aren't particularly high. And, despite the obnoxious amount of money I'd spent, I'd somehow gotten a deal.
Walk That Way. No. The Stadium. The Big Stadium With Super Bowl on it.
I expected the usual clusterfuck around Levi's Stadium but, in some sort of garish insult to everyone living in the bay, traffic somehow wasn't actually that bad. In my immense smugness I checked Google Maps from my home address to the stadium and learned that it was the same old 45-minute drive. Though having an Airbnb the night of was a good idea, I made sure to add "get an Airbnb the night before" to the list of bad decisions I'd already made. One thing I didn't consider was that the nine security-related road closures around the stadium would make parking—or getting a thing with wheels anywhere near the stadium—hellish.
My girlfriend dropped my brother and me off just before the point at which Great American Parkway becomes the Great American Walkway, about half a mile from the stadium. Terrifying armor-plated humvees and soldiers with guns stood side by side with friendly guides in sky blue parkas. The guides had one piece of fairly intuitive advice—go toward the big stadium that says Super Bowl on it.
As we got closer, I saw the saddest thing: a large man in a tight blue shirt, an empty $20 lanyard around his neck. "Got any spare tickets?" he monotoned, eyes down at his feet. Was he alone? Did he fuck up, his wife and kids waiting for him inside and getting nervous? The crowd carried us past; we'll never know.
Security was the same for everyone. I could complain about this, as I was promised a Secret Security Checkpoint with my expensive tickets, but it took all of 10 minutes to get into the biggest sporting event of the year. For me, and for everyone else. For a game that had so thoroughly pissed on the heads of the surrounding area, it was surprising to see how efficient everything was. For ticketholders, anyway, if not for anyone else.
Opulence for the Opulence Throne
Our tickets were 115VIP, and our lanyard had two big shiny circles on it: EAST CLUB and POST-FIELD. We also had access to the Michael Mina restaurant from 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM, and this was when I first started to feel like a Special Boy That Paid For A Valuable Thing. We were ushered into the place with a suitably fancy "Right this way, sir," and entered... what could have been any restaurant, really. There was a buffet at the back and a line for the bathroom.
In the bathroom, a man who was slurring his words laugh-bellowed at his friend for "already pissin' on the damn floor." I assumed it was a joke, but then saw the stain on his pants, and the proof that he was not joking. I made a mental note: urine goes in the big porcelain chamber. The giddy, red-faced man had reached this state barely 15 minutes after the doors opened. Truly, he was The Yellow King. I was offered a glass of champagne by a bright and breezy helper the moment I left the bathroom. I then turned the corner and immediately was handed another. "SUPER BOWL FIFTY, BABY," declared a well-suited man.
The food itself was actually pretty stunning. I filled my body to capacity with foie gras and duck breast—I know, I know, leave the poor thing alone—some sort of egg-meat biscuit and lobster corn-dogs. The well-suited man returned to our sides to offer us anything, anything, and identified himself as either Jean-Claude or Jean-Paul. "I care about this stuff," he said, seemingly very much in earnest. "I care about the guests here. You all paid a lot of money, so you should feel it." Three champagnes later and I was certainly "feeling it" under the thump-thump of Jason Derulo.
From there, nobody quite knew what was going on. I tried to take the usual escalator to the club area, got in line, and the person at the end put a hand in my face and said, "No, NO, this is for the BOX OWNERS," like I was a dog about to squeeze one out on the wrong lawn. I walked away, confused, walked past the escalator again, and the same handler screamed at me, a lusty full-throated "NO," as if he thought I was about to Matrix my way up the wall and try and lick Archie Manning's ear. You should be so lucky, old man.
Oh, Right, A Football Game
Someone heard me say, "Where the hell is the damn East Club, and also what the hell is the East Club," and said, "The East Club is in this elevator." It was: down said elevator, down a hallway, 'round a corner and into a roped-off area of leather-lined seats and dark red walls. The centerpiece was a giant ice sculpture of a football, surrounded by tiny little footballs, and the logo of Nobu Restaurant. I asked if the food was from Nobu. Nobody knew. Nobody knew why Nobu was on there at all. In the interest of disclosure, I will note that some time later, I would drunkenly stumble by the tiny little ice footballs, steal one, declare more loudly than intended "I HAVE TAKEN THE FOOTBALL EGG," and then immediately put it down when a security guard scowled at me.
This was apparently the 50 on the 50 Club. Or it was the East Club, or maybe something else. My lanyard said "East Club," unlike that of seemingly every other person in the stadium, and I was constantly stopped and regarded by security as some sort of Stella Artois thief. I eventually befriended one of the security guards, and he became my savior. Toby, from East Oakland, thank you. On a day when people were spending $30,000 on a ticket, you were the only person who seemed to know what was happening.
The 115 section is curious, but we were lucky to be there. Our seats, in row 22, seats 6 and 7, were beautiful—dead on the 50, and squarely in the sunlight. You could access the 115s through the East Club, which made getting to the bathroom easier—I know I am bringing up the bathroom a lot, but also I drank a lot—and also allowed you to stand on the sideline for a look outside, at which point security guards would usually say, "No, you can't do this." In this case, "this" was "drink a beer and mumble 'fuckin' ell.'"
Sadly, the one thing my editor wanted most, and which I wanted most, was not accessible from 115: the party being thrown by bleach-tipped foodster Guy Fieri, up in the 200s. I, on the other hand, was stuck down with a bunch of people who weren't well-moneyed idiots. Vince Vaughn, Nina Dobrev, and the only one I cared about, Kevin Chapman aka Lieutenant Fusco from Person of Interest, were down in the 100 level, but managed to stay out of sight.
Somehow, half of these people were Australian or British. I half expected @parsfarce to jump up and yell, "FUCK ME ROOTED GET CAM SOME PROTECTION," spitting angrily. My brother turned to his left, and loudly the woman declared, "OUR FRIENDS ARE RICH AS FUCK AND GOT US TICKETS," which was par for the course. However, to my right was something genuinely lovely, and something like what the NFL sells on Sundays: a mother, and a Panthers fan, had brought her daughters and son to the game thanks to their godparents finding tickets. The kids were beaming, she was mom of the year, and she wasn't some random startup asshole. It seemed like a miracle.
As it was, I didn't meet any startup assholes. What a treat. Maybe that was the real miracle.
The Actual Game
Though I made sure to fill my face with beer and food—it was "complimentary" provided you didn't put any math or thought into it—I did watch the game. My brother was rooting for the Broncos, and we were on the right side for that, and I found the game entertaining enough—I love a good defensive effort, and came to admire the velocity of the terrible passing, Cam Newton's ultra-refined hissy fits, and the rest. Most people in earshot were asking great questions like "What's a kickoff?" and "Wide re-what?" and "Which one's Peyton?" Shockingly, listening to people confused as to what (and I quote) "ass interference" was got even more entertaining as I became drunker.
While one can't necessarily say that this was a "reasonable" amount of money to pay, there's a palpable atmosphere to the Super Bowl, a buzz that clearly enlivens even those who don't know what's going on and which transcends even everyone booing Tom Brady together. The game itself even felt short, which is usually not the sense I get at home, I suppose because I can go to get a beer or stare at Kevin Chapman, star of Person of Interest and a person I love, during commercials.
One thing that is undeniably more powerful in person is the way the crew swamps the field with personnel to set up for the halftime show, scurrying like people who have to build the world's largest lego stage or see their families killed. I have no idea how that stage got built in five minutes. I was watching, and I myself couldn't tell you. It may have been the beer. It may have been my constant search for Guy Fieri. But it happened, somehow. We've all seen the proof.
Either way, it kicked off with a shower of confetti and explosions, which in the stadium is kind of stunning. Then you're faced with the immediate disappointment of Chris Martin, who bounced around the stage flanked by crowds of people carrying colorful umbrellas. The person to my left yelled, "FUCK YOU, COLDPLAY," which was the best part of the show and maybe the whole experience. Everyone wore the same pained expression, hating the weird, echoey, depressing jackrabbit's moany bullshit. People sat down, arms crossed. Chris, come on.
Finally, Earth-2 Redditor Bruno Mars strolled out, desperate to correct Chris Martin on something Naruto-related, his pained grin saying, "I'm sorry everyone, it's not his fault, he doesn't get it." The tempo picked up, he sung, he gyrated, and people began to stand up.
Then Beyoncé stormed on with a horde of dancers, as if she was just hanging out backstage and someone said, "Oh god, Coldplay's out there," and she was just furious and went out there hellbent to make things right. I regularly roll my eyes at my Twitter feed becoming a rogue's gallery of people tweeting "OMG BAE" because Beyoncé said or did something, but holy shit. Where every other Super Bowl halftime show, and especially last year's, felt staged and emotionless, Beyoncé's routine was, while equally and obviously rehearsed and choreographed, something different. I somehow missed the Black Panther tribute that pissed off Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but I'd been drinking and also I consider upsetting him a huge point in her favor.
The game continued, alarmingly fast. I watched as Peyton Manning shuffled and shouted, and came to hate people who yell Omaha whenever he's behind center. I remember him throwing an interception and someone yelling, "That's our Peyton!" People around me harumphed endlessly about not getting what they paid for—they had paid for something more than a legendary defensive performance that made even batted-down passes look interesting.
The Broncos won, I've read.
The Post-Game Shitshow
Levi's Stadium, just given the aftermath, deserves no Super Bowl ever again. The initial staffing of the game was, for all its confusion, at least able to get you to your seat. Once I left, I had a 1.5-hour stay at Michael Mina following an "on-field experience." The walk to get to this "experience" was labyrinthine and exhausting. I realize I'm complaining about my fancy man ticket experience, but this was brutal. The tone of the experience quickly flipped from "Welcome to the Super Bowl!" to "Get the fuck out of this damn stadium, bud," and it took 20 minutes to get remotely near the field. Eventually I got to stand in the middle of a torn-up, confetti-strewn gridiron, with security guards ushering us around. I caught a distant glimpse of Peyton leaving, giddy from the Papa John tryst I wish I had seen.
The garish spectacle was over, and I wanted to leave, but also I wanted to get back to the restaurant to get more of those lobster things. I asked a staffer for directions. "I dunno, man," he said, "use the map on your lanyard." Another guy asked and he said the same. Eventually I was told it was a 20 or so minute walk right back toward my damn seats. There were about 45 minutes of post-game buffet and booze remaining. Also my phone was dead and my head hurt.
I asked if there was anywhere to charge a phone, having lost my brother by this point. The staffer looked at me as if I'd asked where I could purchase a Fleshlight with Chip Kelly's face on it. I asked which way Sunnyvale was, because my phone was dead and I would need to walk home. He threw his arms in the air and huffed. To be fair, he'd been dealing with drunk idiots all night.
In the end, for the price of a down payment on a condo, you can get a lot of things at the Super Bowl. Plush seats, free drinks, shockingly good food. Once they've taken their tithe, they want you out of their hair and gone. It's a NFL thing, maybe.
I walked home, getting stuck in a bush on the way for ten minutes and nearly arrested for walking through a parking lot. Two dudes drove past and yelled, "HAHA, FUCK YOU PANTHERS FAG," which was a good point. I'd have loved to have screamed back some sort of sick burn about my sweet tickets at the Super Bowl, but instead I stuttered out the most pathetic "shut up!" I've ever offered. It seemed fitting, and still does.
The experience was not devoid of human value. The security guard who could have arrested me for urinating against a bush on the walk back, didn't. He sat on a wall with me and showed me how to get back to my Airbnb. "When you gotta go, you gotta go," he said. I guess he was right.